Tyron Frampton was standing on a corner in his hometown of Northampton one night about a decade ago, getting drunk on Lambrini and smoking up with two of his friends, when a 50-something-year-old man with a frazzled, ash-grey beard walked out of the darkness and started up a conversation. Frampton had no idea who this guy was, but one of his friends — “he was a bit more indie” — knew right away that they were listening to Alan Moore, the iconoclastic graphic novelist best known for V for Vendetta and Watchmen. Moore talked for an hour, mostly about his books and the way Hollywood had bastardized and glamorized his ideas. Then he left.
“We didn’t know what to say to each other after that,” Frampton, now 24 and better known as the grime-punk rapper Slowthai, told me last month in the restaurant of a luxury hotel in Downtown Manhattan. “You meet him, it's like meeting a wizard. He's just so calm and, like... magic.”
The two have a lot in common. The front cover of Slowthai’s furious debut album, Nothing Great About Britain — out today via Method — has the rapper naked but for a manic grin, locked into wooden stocks in front of the Northampton council estate that he still calls home. It’s the same block of flats that Moore grew up in, and he still lives just around the corner. Northampton — a town of 200,000 people an hour’s drive from London that’s mostly famous for having a fourth-tier soccer team and an effectively bankrupt local council — inspires them both. “The more time you spend in London, the more you become a Londoner,” Ty said, smiling beneath his white Prada bucket hat, knowing full well that I was from London. “I don't wanna be a Londoner! Growing up, that was hell — being one of them kids who wears Air Force 1s and that. It made me feel sick.”
They also share an uncompromising vision, and Nothing Great About Britain reflects that vividly. The album title is tattooed on Ty’s torso, but both on skin and on record it’s more a provocation than a declaration — a challenge to nasty British masculinity, parochialism, and Brexit-bolstered xenophobia. “Hand on my heart, I swear I'm proud to be British,” he bellows on the title track, and he means it. He loves the country’s “fighting spirit,” “the summer days where everyone gets in their shorts even though it's fucking 15 degrees,” the sense of community; he hates “the empire we built when we raped and took millions and stole everyone's culture,” right-wing extremists like Tommy Robinson, the skinheaded racists who seem to multiply every week. He tried to figure this all out at the restaurant, tripping from one thought into the next, but, like most Brits right now, he ended up exasperated. “Wing it until you win it — that's what it means to me. That's why I'm proud,” he said before turning away. “I don't know, man.”
Besides, Nothing Great About Britain is far more than a political manifesto written over squelching grime beats. It’s reflective, often lush, and, at times, touching. “Gorgeous” is a gurning nostalgia trip and “Crack” is an exhausted love song. But the closer, “Northampton’s Child,” is the most affecting of the lot, a tribute to Ty’s mother, who raised he and his siblings alone, despite unthinkable tragedy. Ty’s younger brother, Michael, was born with muscular dystrophy and died as an infant; Ty's father left when he was young; his step-father was an addict. His mother kept it together. “I just hope I can make you proud,” he raps, seemingly on the verge of tears. “You're the strongest person I know / Made us happy even when you felt down / Always other people first.”
That’s the core of Nothing Great About Britain. For all of his endearing bluster and piss-drunk comedy and papercut wit, Slowthai is constantly trying to empathize. He tells his own life story and then tries to get into the heads of others — the mother who kept him afloat and the people who stand behind him, leaning over the balconies next to the Union Jacks on the album’s front cover.
In an interview a couple of years back, Alan Moore explained why he decided to stay in Northampton. “It makes life so much richer to actually understand where you are and the often-astonishing tale of how that place came to be,” he said. “It’s not like this is all some kind of intellectual exercise. I believe that it genuinely grounds you in the world and gives you an expanded vision of that world.” Slowthai knows that too, even as his world is growing larger than he ever could have imagined.
Tell me about Nothing Great About Britain’s art, with you in the stocks in front of your estate.
I'll be the guy to get laughed at to make the points for you to have a realization, an epiphany, or actually provoke a thought. Everyone behind me that's stood in the flats, they're the people backing me. You, holding the cover looking at me, are the one laughing at my pain and laughing at my story. Always being the jester, the joker — in the stocks with everyone chucking fruit and stoning me and shit. It's just letting people find something funny at the same time as seeing the seriousness of it.
We look the people from the estates like lower people. We're all one and the same. I just gotta shine a light on them. That's what I'm speaking for. My realization from it all, while making the album and the point I wanted to get across — no matter what fuck shit you do in your life, that doesn't make any difference. It's the people in your life. It's the family, it's the community. That's what makes this place great. That's what makes fucking happiness. We are all stuck together at the hip, and I felt like that was getting lost. I had to put that point across.
The Bush, the estate where you grew up, was literally split off from Northampton.
Where Bush is — which is a collective of estates or whatever — is just pushed to the end of one side. Everything's on your doorstep. And then, everything that was community-based — like the pubs, the youth clubs, all that shit, the bookies even — they've closed them all down on every estate. Now people ain't got fuck all. The only time anyone would have to leave my estate was if they were going to sign on [to unemployment benefits]. Obviously, you had people that worked — it's not like everyone's a fucking dosser — but the majority of people didn't have qualifications. No one would take them serious because of the way they looked, and they don't have money to change their appearance. It all just comes back to that, man. Growing up feeling as if this is all I've got, this is all I'm ever gonna be — it's instilled in your mind from just being in that area, seeing the houses, seeing how shit everything is. You just feel like we're the forgotten: Who's doing anything for us?
It was a blessing, but at the same time it's one of those things that gives you a shit outlook on life. It's hard to make something of it. But it raised me. I'm a product of that place. I wouldn't be me without being there.
You open this record up by saying you're proud to be British. How's that identity shifted for you since the Brexit vote?
It's changed. I just like the culture — everything except for the ignorance. It's the summer days where everyone gets in their shorts even though it's fucking 15 degrees. That spirit and the energy that empowers us and makes us these egotistical monsters. That's what I love. I'm proud of the community; I'm proud to be part of something; I'm proud to have experienced this way of life. But I'm not proud of politics, I'm not proud of the racist [National Front] people, the BNP or fucking Tommy Robinson. None of that.
Every time the national anthem came on from when I've been a kid, I've felt my heart — it's me. This means everything to me. And then everything I valued it for, when I got older, that didn't seem to be what it was. But I love it, and I'm proud of it, but I'm not, and it's a constant contradiction.
You often seem to be picking apart the masculinity of Britishness as well. Is it hard to detangle those things?
I've just always seen it, like guys in the pub when I was working on building sites. Everyone's got this false attitude, and they're putting on a deeper voice. It's all about being the top lad; you're so clouded and your judgement is so lost. I've experienced it first hand with my mum being in relationships. It's never done nothing for me. There were times in my life when I wasn't in touch with my emotions, but when I got older, I realized it's important to fucking cry and just be in touch with yourself. I just need to be open, and if people judge me for it, it don't matter. I'm sick of seeing kids act a certain way because they think they've got to be the man. They're not the man — they’re some other guy. You can be whatever you wanna be. Why do you want to be the roughest geezer that just fucking puts women down?
It's unnecessary — toxic masculinity. I have to stand up and just push them people down and make they realize they're thick as shit. Being a man is just bullshit. You're not a man, you're more like a boy when you act like that. It doesn't do anything for the world, it doesn't do anything for people, so stop being a cunt.
You were raised by a single mother as well. That must have had a big impact on you.
If I was fucking negative to women, my mum would have kicked the shit out of me. I couldn't have lived with that. I couldn't live in a house with women and go by that, and I wouldn't want to. The only real relationships I had through my childhood was my mum and my sister, so whatever caters to their needs and empowers them and makes them feel like the best person in the world, that's what I need to do. Seeing my mum go out there and earn less money and get told how to be and getting spoke to by certain men in certain ways — I just felt like, fuck this. Anyone speaks to my mum in a certain way, I'll punch their head in.
Has your mum heard “Northampton’s Child” yet?
Yeah, she cried when she heard it. That was the thing. I play her the stuff. She's from a different generation, but she's still young, so she likes a lot of the stuff I like. If she likes it, I know it's hard. But with [“Northampton’s Child”], I didn't really want to play it to her, because I knew it would upset her.
Why'd you think it would upset her?
Some of those things, she hasn't come to terms with. I think it's hard for someone else to speak about it when you don't like speaking about it yourself. It's like you're facing it again without wanting to. And then, at the same time, I think it just meant the world to her that someone voiced our story. I put my mum on a pedestal, I made her a queen. My brother [pauses]. All shit that happened in my life. For her it must be sad, but at the same time, I'm telling our story, I'm putting it out there for the world. I think that gives her more relief. Each tear you shed when you cry, you feel better.
My cousin as well, he cried. He came to the studio the night I made it, and I didn't really like it. I feel like when you're talking deep on something, you can't express the true nature — you can't express how many layers to something there was.
Is it weird to put things like that on the record then?
That's what it was — I didn't want to put it on. It's a bit too much. But I felt like I had to explain it. This record, I wanted people to understand where I come from, where I was born, how I grew up, so you can understand who I am. And then, for the people who are from the same place, they can understand, and it empowers them to be different and change. For you to know me and understand me and to really connect, you have to know everything.
Do you play that one live?
Not yet. When the album comes out, I'll be playing it all. That one I'll probably turn around and face the wall. I'll probably get upset and shit. It's a different thing when it's real in that moment. When you're at a show you can see how people feel about something — it's a bit overbearing.
Are there musicians who you saw growing up who you saw being that emotionally honest?
Elliott Smith, but he's not a rapper. His whole music's about his pain and his relationships. The majority of ‘90s rappers did it to a certain extent, but everything was exaggerated — there was always a bit of glitz and glam to what they were saying. I guess Kid Cudi, when he came out, it was okay to be the weird kid that no one likes.
There's not a lot of glitz and glamor on this record at all.
I'm more putting myself down. I've never had big diamonds, I never had big cars. I ain't got a license, I ain't got a house. I still live with my mum. Why am I going to talk about that shit if I've never experienced it? Why am I going to make my life seem glamorous if it's the complete opposite?
You think that's a British thing, that ability to put yourself down?
For real, yeah. That was what we made fun of growing up. The fact that we didn't have nothing and we just got along with it. Grandparents, the older generation, they'll be like, I used to go and get rations. Outside of London, everyone's really conscious that they ain't got much. We'll make do, we get by. Where I come from, if someone looks like they got money, they're a dickhead instantly.
You’re also trying to resist maturity. On “Grown Up,” you say, “Why waste your life trying to grow up when you can enjoy every moment?”
Yeah, why get old? When you're a kid, you spend so much time wanting to leave school and get a job. You're supposed to go and get a house, and then you go and get a mortgage, and you work for your whole life to go and pay that mortgage off, and then you retire, and you paid your pension fund, and then you get basically a fucking dole rate of your own money when you get to this age, unless you've had a successful career, and then you end up dying, and then your house goes to your kids if you don't, and then you get buried or you get burnt.
If you get buried, after 100 years they turn your grave over and you're evaporated, your life's completely gone. So you've got like 100 years of your legacy, the property you bought, and everything you worked hard for, which your kids will probably sell. That property will be forgotten about, and they'll spend the money on something else. Eventually, everything you worked for didn't mean nothing. So, you have to get a house? Why? Go and build a fucking log shack in the middle of nowhere. Why do I have to pay for this plot of land? Who gave you this? Who ever gave you it?
You're an anarchist.
Yeah, because it's bullshit! Everything we live by and everything we follow is constantly pushing you down and putting you in your place — the sunken place. You can't do nothing. It's all to kill your inner child. You have this little voice in you that runs around, we've all got it. And from the moment you're born, it's stamped out. You go to school — stamped out. Follow this, listen to the bell, do this, you have break at this time, follow this, all schedule and routine. You do it your whole life until the day you die. How does that benefit anybody? No one really wants to live like that.
Do you have to work to keep that alive?
Yeah, even myself, as much as I say these things, I fall victim to it. Like I wanna get a house!
Do you think Albert Einstein was ever that serious where he was just stressing and hating? When he was figuring stuff out, he was having a laugh! I have moments where I'm not in touch with it and I'm all depressive and shit, like I hate life. But then I get hyped. The key example is Damon Albarn, I’ve seen him working. You can be talking to him, he don't care: play this, try this, some mad shit. And then out of it, something good comes. Any time I'm doing that and I'm fully free and following what's in here, just letting that be paramount and take control, I'm just having the best time of my life. I make the best music. For a moment I'm thinking about how I'm meant to be perceived and what I've gotta do, and I think like a grown-up — I never have any fun! It's all shit; it's all jarring and I don't like listening to it.
You've got collaborations with Skepta and Slaves on this on this record. How does that mentality play out when you’re working with others?
Slaves are the same, man. They're just playful. It's like jumping in the ballpit and you meet another kid, and you end up running around. If you don't have that with the people you work with, you shouldn't work with them. I was in a shit place in my life, and now I can make music and sit in a studio where I always dreamed of being. What the fuck have I got to be sad about? Why am I gonna be negative? I'm gonna abuse everything in this place and have as much fun as I can.
I learned on building sites — in the morning you leave the house at 5 a.m., and in the van we'd be banging tunes, having a laugh, playing around on the site, flicking cement or putting it down the back of someone's trousers and shit. Being little twats. Because that's what's fun; that's what makes you have a good time. Life shouldn't be something that's draining and long. If you've got such a short time here, why should you spend most of it depressed?
Even Skep, he's very like that. He's very in touch with like, whoah, looking at everything like it's something brand new. With him, he's just one of them people who's always looking for what's fresh, what's new, what's going on. Growing up listening to him, then to have someone like that giving me advice, teaching me things, giving me props on what I'm doing and saying — it's the biggest blessing.
You’re testing out new music already. What’s different now?
I'm definitely staying away from politics. With that sound that I've got now, I've hit the ceiling of that. The next project I want to do, I just want it to be all gas. Hype shit. Bangers. I've given you this introspective thing, a look into my life. Now I just want to party. I want to go out and get fucked up again. I think I'm gonna do three projects next year, followed by another album. But the next album, I want it to be more alternative. So all the heaters and the slappers and shit, they'll be on these mixtapes. It's not gonna be as deep, but it's still gonna be about everyday life. I can't move away from that. It's gotta be fucking real.
That's what else. After this album run, I'm gonna spend some time just figuring out where I'm at.
Go back to Northampton?
Yeah, go back to Northampton. And I wanna go Palestine. I wanna go try to do something, try to help. I got money now, so I can go and see what needs doing. I'm just trying to grow, man.
Nothing Great About Britain is out now via Method